How many times have you gone to work and not really felt up to it?

It’s something called presenteeism, and it’s an issue that’s rapidly rising.

Health insurer Vitality conducted a recent study that saw more than 40% of employees stating their work is affected by health problems. This figure has grown by over a third over the last five years.

The study found that despite these growing health issues, people are putting aside their mental and physical health problems to attend work.

sick while working

Further evidence was also found in the annual Health and Well-Being at Work Survey Report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

The CIPD stated that more than four-fifths (83%) of its respondents had observed presenteeism in their organization, while a quarter (25%) indicated the problem had worsened over the last year.

Falling into depression

Sarah Mitchell-Hume had no personal experiences with mental health until she had a panic attack at her desk.

She was merely two years into a job she absolutely loved doing engineering recruitment, when all of a sudden, she became unwell. Sarah had been diagnosed with depression.

“I felt pressurized to go back to work, even though I was signed off sick,” she recalls.

“I was physically present but mentally I wasn’t doing anything. And I’d just zone out, there was nothing going on behind my eyes. I think I just cleared my inbox every day. It made me more ill. I should’ve been at home recovering.”

The growing problem of Presenteeism in the workplace
Sarah Hume kept working through her sickness. Image courtesy of BBC News

In what was the beginning of her career and aged just 24, she felt as though her career had come to an end.

If you break your ankle, it’s clear you need time off. Having a mental illness or suffering from workplace stress is much more difficult to spot. But Vitality’s research has shown that this inability for people to self report and/or managers or colleagues to detect the problem is exacerbating this growing issue of people showing up to work when they’re unfit to be there.

Growing trend

Vitality’s annual survey, Britain’s Healthiest Workplace, involves 167 organizations and 32,000 employees. The goal is to understand and address poor health and wellbeing across the UK workforce.

Presenteeism is the clear and growing trend. It’s just one of many studies which have come to the same conclusion.

It’s obvious that if we’re not at our best, we’re less productive employees.

In 2014, Dale Garbacki lost his wife and subsequently hit rock bottom. In addition to being her main caregiver, he was holding down a full time job in technical support for Dixons Carphone.

“Productivity dropped to what I call bare minimums,” he admitted.

The Growing Problem of 'Presenteeism' in the Workplace
Dan Garbacki in his job at Dixon’s Carphone. Image courtesy of BBC News

“I’d had several warnings. By finally reaching out to the company and having a private chat with one of my managers, about how I was feeling and what I was going through at home, the loss of my wife, he said ‘ah, why didn’t you tell me sooner. We’ll need to get you some help’.”

Unlike Mithcell-Hume who felt as though she had no support in her job which ultimately resulted in her leaving, Garbacki began a work-sponsored fitness regime to help him turn his life around.

His routine includes running in his local park in Preston, as well as working out at the company gym.

“I’m definitely a lot better than I was. Overall I feel better in myself. I have more positive and confident feelings and I actually look forward to each day.”

This has resulted in improvement in his work performance, as well. He has now earned his first ever full bonus.

Good business case for employers

Garbacki’s employer has also been on a journey.

The Growing Problem of 'Presenteeism' in the Workplace
Kesah Trowell makes the business case for health and wellbeing programs in the workplace. Image courtesy of BBC News

Kesah Trowell is the Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Dixon’s Carphones, and is charge of health and wellbeing programs such as the one Garbacki is enrolled in.

“It really does make good business sense,” says Ms Trowell.

“It’s important that we have happy, healthy and engaged workforce, particularly since we’re in a retail environment. ”

She adds: “Technology makes it easy for people to hide behind their desks, their computers or their phones. It’s easier for more presenteeism than there would’ve been a few years ago. That’s why it’s important for us to manage this.”

Productivity problem

Could reducing presenteeism help solve the productivity problem?

“Absolutely,” says Neville Koopowitz, chief executive of Vitality.

“Workplace stress and mental wellbeing has a massive impact. We believe presenteeism is the key issue to Britain’s productivity problem, where people are at work and not performing in an optimal way,” Mr Koopowitz says.

Mitchell-Hume now does freelance and voluntary work as well as her busy mother duties. She’s happy, but regrets the way her employer handled things.

“It was so incredibly difficult. A bit of compassion, empathy and flexibility would’ve made all the difference,” she says.

“The workplace can be a tough place to be. There’s so much more to be done to look after employees.”

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